Friday, April 16, 2010

Technology: Actually using UNIX on OS X

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Way back in the late 1990's, when Apple announced that its next operating system would be based on UNIX but maintain the easy-to-use graphical interface that had differentiated the Macintosh from other consumer computers, I was very excited. I would be able to have the power of a UNIX shell, which I had come to appreciate in the university environment and later on commercial shell accounts, and still be able to do the bulk of my tasks with the near-mindless interface of the Macintosh most of the time--there was no compelling technical reason to use a Microsoft operating system, about which I had few good things to say.

Indeed, I have stayed with the Macintosh line of computers through the launch of Mac OS X to present day. However, I have almost never actually used the UNIX shell underneath Mac OS X. Partly, I felt little reason to explore it because work was always forcing me to do more with the Windows operating system that I really wanted to deal with, and I maintained a commercial UNIX account to host my web site, so if I wanted to do something at a UNIX command line I'd often just SSH to that account and do it there.

Now, as I am being forced to migrate from the FreeBSD-based web hosting account that I have used since 2000 because of a degradation of service, that has finally changed. It turns out that almost nobody offers already-installed UNIX clients to read e-mail anymore. I've been using Pine, written by a team at the University of Washington, to read my e-mail since my very first e-mail accounts at Stanford University and Delphi, and pretty much everywhere I've had an active e-mail account since. I've come to appreciate the minimum number of keystrokes required to read through mail using Pine.

While I haven't always used it, Pine supports the IMAP protocol for retrieving mail from a server. It finally occurred to me that with a IMAP-supporting server, there was no reason I couldn't run Pine on Mac OS X, and then I wouldn't have to run it on a remote account. I soon discovered that Pine has been succeeded by Alpine, and with help from an on-line tutorial from Paul Heinline, I had Alpine up and running on my home computer in a minimal amount of time. The hardest part was figuring out the correct security settings to use with my new IMAP e-mail provider, as they are appropriately stringent and far from Alpine's defaults.

So, now I am finally using the UNIX underpinnings of Mac OS X, going into the Terminal to run Alpine and check e-mail from my new hosting service over IMAP. I always knew that the architecture of Mac OS X was going to be a very nice thing to use, but it took me a decade to finally find a good enough reason to use it.

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